Fresno State knew it would have games like this at some point -- one when its offense would struggle to move the ball or score and the defense would need to step up.
The Bulldogs defense rose to the challenge Friday night, coming up with two interceptions in the final seven minutes to help seal a 24-13 Mountain West victory against San Diego State before an announced crowd of 33,928 at Bulldog Stadium.
Linebacker Donavon Lewis hauled in an interception after it bounced off two other Bulldogs players' hands to halt an Aztecs drive at the Fresno State 34 with 6:15 remaining.
Then, after the Bulldogs punted on the ensuing drive, Lewis answered again by tipping a swing pass that cornerback Jamal Ellis corralled for another interception to end San Diego's next drive with 4:14 left.
With Ellis' pick giving the Bulldogs possession at the Aztecs 7-yard-line, Fresno State added some much-needed cushion points when Marteze Waller ran in a 5-yard touchdown to help wrap up what coach Tim DeRuyter termed a "street brawl" type of game.
"College football is a game of momentum," DeRuyter said. "We had it at times. They had it at times. At that point in the game, (San Diego State) stopping us and having the ball back, it was one of those times we needed a momentum-changing play.
"Clearly that changed it. It didn't ice it necessarily. But when we scored to go up two scores, it made a big difference."
The Bulldogs (3-3, 2-0), who have beaten the Aztecs three straight seasons, opened a two-game lead on San Diego State (2-3, 1-1) in the conference's West Division.
It was a sluggish outing by both teams throughout as both teams punted five times.
San Diego State had some reason for its struggles as true freshman quarterback Nick Bawden made his first start. Fresno State's problems came from dealing with the Aztecs' 3-3-5 defense.
Bulldogs starting quarterback Brian Burrell failed to build off his 318-yard, three-touchdown performance last week. Instead, he committed two turnovers, was sacked three times and didn't throw or rush for a touchdown. He completed 14 of 28 passes for 143 yards and ran 14 times for 51 yards.
Good thing for the Bulldogs that their defense stepped up when it mattered most.
San Diego State was held to 270 total yards, including just 84 passing yards. Bawden struggled most of the night and completed just 9 of 24 passes with one touchdown and two interceptions and lost a fumble. He often either failed to make quick decisions or missed his intended targets by wide margins.
The Bulldogs also held Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphrey to 94 rushing yards and kept him out of the end zone. Pumphrey entered the game ranked No. 2 in the nation with nine rushing touchdowns.
By the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs were dropping back eight defenders in zone coverage to force Bawden to throw in front of them, which helped them come up with the two late interceptions.
On Lewis' interception, safety Derron Smith actually had the first opportunity to make the pick but instead tipped it up. Then cornerback Curtis Riley came in and tipped it, too.
"Everybody was in coverage except for our defensive linemen," Lewis said of the Bulldogs' late-game defense. "Anytime you have a bunch of guys covering four receivers, it's tough to throw that ball. That's what he did."
Fresno State also benefited from a rash of San Diego State penalties that led to a Bulldogs touchdown late in the third quarter.
Fresno State went ahead 17-6 with 2:49 left in the third on running Josh Quezada's 2-yard run that capped an 11-play, 81-yard drive. The Aztecs, however, accounted for 38 of those yards on four penalties -- with three of the flags occurring on fourth down.
Despite a sluggish overall performance overall, Fresno State actually got on the scoreboard faster than it has done all season.
Freshman walk Kody Kroening made a 37-yard field goal on a line-drive kick with 8:18 left in the first quarter to give Fresno State its first offensive points in a first quarter this season. It also marked the first time the Bulldogs scored first in a game.
Then, Fresno State scored its first opening-quarter touchdown quarter when backup quarterback Brandon Connette came in on fourth-and-goal and ran in a 1-yard touchdown for a 10-0 Bulldogs lead with 2:56 left in the first. Connette's run capped a 10-play, 67-yard drive.
"Our guys knew, every time we play San Diego State, it's going to be a fight -- it's going to be a street brawl," DeRuyter said. "They were into it. Our guys were into it. Just really pleased how our guys continued to make plays when we needed to.
"Our team was much maligned and deservedly so after those first three games. But I think the last three games, I think our guys have shown we're very capable of accomplishing our No. 1 goal and that's winning the Mountain West. We're one more step toward that goal."